"Wild Boar" Is Just Too Tame @ Silk Road Rising

"Wild Boar" Is Just Too Tame @ Silk Road Rising

2.5 stars out of 4

The problem with Candace Chong’s Wild Boar, now receiving its U.S. Premiere at Silk Road Rising, is that none of the characters comes close to the ferocity of the creature in the title. Despite an opening sequence that hints at a taut political whodunnit, the play almost immediately becomes a series of static set pieces, with characters discussing journalism instead of pursuing it, talking about love instead of dealing with their frustrated passions, and enumerating fears instead of succumbing to the panic they inspire. This makes the few moments of action seem incongruous and unbelievable. The problem at the root seems to lie with the script (or with David Henry Hwang’s adaptation), though director Helen Young and the cast also do little to inject momentum into the meandering plot.

First premiered in 2012 at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Wild Boar became prescient as mainland China flexed its muscle to the detriment of Hong Kong’s democratic ideals. It is the strength of these ideals that comes under scrutiny in Chong’s play. Unfortunately, the script feels unfinished, with long stretches of dialogue that seem to spiral into nothingness and no character seeming fully formed. The ideas are there, but they lack the purpose and passion that would make them gripping to watch. The complexity of the issues seems to have led Chong into a labyrinth of words that she has not yet managed to escape, making for a thriller that wanders into dead ends, twists and turns without direction, and ultimately reaches no destination. It is also possible that some of the original tension is lost in translation. If this is the case, translators Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, and adapter David Henry Hwang, have failed to find the urgency in the text, or to mold the material into a compelling examination of political freedom versus stability and the role of the media in society.

Director Helen Young, whose previous work on Chicago stages has demonstrated a strong sense of storytelling acumen, in this production compounds the shortcomings of the script. Her blocking often mirrors the circuitous stasis of the dialogue, trapping the characters at a distance from each other so that they often become spectators in their own scenes. Even romantic encounters become wordy, passionless, polemic, with the characters often stuck at arms-length. Young’s production has all the visual hallmarks of a fast-paced political mystery. Yeaji Kim’s sleek set, with its sliding panels, allows for quick changes between settings and provides a backdrop for the stylish, topical projections by Anthony Churchhill, that blend photos of contemporary Hong Kong with real and fictional news stories relevant to the plot. Melissa Ng’s costumes convey the broad outlines of the characters. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design is appropriately shadowy, while shifting easily between locations. Sound designer and composer Thomas Dixon has created an understated, jazzy score that underscores the noir elements of the script. Katy West’s props ground the settings in various offices, bars and restaurants without clutter. But style does not, in this case, amplify the substance of the play.

Set in a fictional city with more than a passing to Hong Kong, Wild Boar begins like a stylish thriller, with the abduction of a controversial academic, Mu Ne (Fin Coe) by a shadowy agent (Emily Marso). This sets the ball rolling for newspaper editor, Ruan Wenshan, who resigns his position and founds his own paper, having just run afoul of censors for the first time, his editorial replaced by a white square that would have contained its text. His younger wife, Tricia (Christine Bunuan), understands that he will require some assistance and summons Johnny (Scott Shimizu), her one-time lover and Ruan’s adoring protégé, who has been tending to family issues out of town. Together with Johnny’s well-intentioned, tech-savvy, but somewhat rudderless friend Yam (also played by Fin Coe), the three embark on a quest to find Professor Mu and to confront the murky corporate-government forces collaborating on a new, repressive city plan that would create living spaces in concentric circles around the city center, with the downtrodden in the outer circles (or, worse, underground). In the process, they discover a portentous oral history, confront threats and doubts, and navigate their own troubled romantic pasts and present. Johnny tries to form a connection with an old flame from his student years, Karrie (an interesting character who is more developed than some of the principle roles, played with charm and sincerity by Emily Marso), now working as a waitress, who strikingly points out that he cannot be free and responsible at the same time; she herself has decided, for a range of reasons including her belief in personal sacrifice for the general good, that freedom is overrated. She is, as it turns out, quite committed to this ideal, and determined to interfere with Ruan and company’s machinations to stop the development plan.

All the elements of a gripping story are in place, but the script keeps spinning its wheels, retreading points that have already been made, lingering in moments that have already passed, and generally making it difficult for the actors to generate any heat. Even the reliable Christine Bunuan cannot make her frustratingly dated character rise beyond her turgid lines. Emily Marso is partially successful in her personal plea to Johnny, but less convincing when the personal becomes political in a confrontation with Ruan. As Johnny, Scott Shimizu simply comes across as too measured and dispassionate—lacking the fun of the playboy side of his character or the fire of the activist side. F. Karmann Bajuyo plays Ruan too much as a mild-mannered professor, lacking the smoldering power that would compel loyalty from both his wife and his students. Fin Coe provides some comedic moments as the stock sidekick Yam, but neither the character nor Coe can go beyond the character’s utility as a plot device (being able to hack into computers and hunt wild boars).

Ultimately, the issues raised by the Wild Boar—the prevalence of fake news, the dangers of corporate/government/media consolidation, the disenfranchisement of the working class, and the question of who writes history (either the first or final draft)—get buried in soap operatic digressions and muddled, recursive debates. A stylish design, highlighted by Thomas Dixon’s edgy score, cannot hide the fact that despite the work of playwright Candace Chong, translators Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, and adapter David Henry Hwang, the script feels like a bloated first draft. There is a good play here, but in its current form it is buried in overlong scenes and stilted dialogue that does not propel characters to the moments of real action that take place. The love triangle seems like a pointless throwback, detracting from both the message of the play and the characters—turning photographer Tricia into a lovesick schoolgirl, her husband into a puppy dog, and her lover into a playboy—none of which helps reinforce their roles as smart, passionate fighters for truth and freedom, nor lends them more complexity. Silk Road Rising deserves a lot of credit for seeking out new voices that we do not hear from much in America, but this play is just not ready for prime time. In the script, Hong Kong’s wild boars are nearing extinction—unfortunately, in this production, they already are.

Wild Boar runs through December 17 at Silk Road Rising at the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St, Lower Level. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 4:00 pm. Regular performance tickets are $35 for adults and $17.50 for students. For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.wildboarplay.org or call 312-857-1234 x201. For more information, also visit www.theatreinchicago.com

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.